One of my favorite lines about the sixties states that if you remember them, you weren’t there. I am not sure what I remember and what I don’t but there are some memories that do stand out: the assassination of President Kennedy, the arrival of the Beatles, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention, The Vietnam War, Kent State, the moon landing, and I know I’m stretching into the early seventies, the Watergate break-in leading to the Watergate hearings and the downfall of Richard Nixon.
If you asked me what all of these events had in common yesterday I would have waffled and come up with some platitudes about the “hippy” era and the baby boom. Today the answer is clear to me: they mark a golden age of television journalism. The golden boy of that golden age was Walter Cronkite.
It will be hard for anyone under the age of 50 to understand the real power of television news in the sixties and seventies. Without understanding that power it will be impossible to understand the greatness of “Uncle Walter.”
Just about everyone in North America got almost all their news from television. Polls at the time said 75% got 100% of their news from TV. And the man who was the most trusted man in America through those times was Walter Cronkite, a news anchor and journalist.
When Walter was the anchor at CBS I never knew the name of the CBS national newscast. I never heard anyone say they were going to watch The CBS Evening News. You said you were going to watch Cronkite, or Walter, it was like calling all tissue paper Kleenex, Walter Cronkite was more than the brand he was the product. Nobody before or since in Canada or the United States has come close to that kind of power and reach.
Whenever I hired a news anchor it was Walter Cronkite I sought to find. I remember telling my boss at CBC that no host of a show is a success until the host’s name replaces the name of the program in the viewers’ minds. So what was I looking for? I wanted a person who had real journalism experience in the field so that they could empathize with both the reporters and the subjects of the stories. I wanted a person of integrity for whom the story was everything. I wanted someone who was willing to display their humanity on air. Most of all I wanted someone the audience immediately trusted. Walter Cronkite had all of that and one more thing, perhaps the most elusive thing of all, he was a star.
You see it has always been my belief that television is one of the greatest lie detectors man has ever devised. When someone is talking to you on TV you somehow know if they are telling the truth. You can read their character. In 1960 people who heard the debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on radio thought Nixon won the debate. Television viewers were even more certain that Kennedy won. Viewers know when a host or anchor is being real. I believe the success of Lloyd Robertson is that he is exactly the same on and off camera. You see Lloyd on TV you know the man. In Canada, Barbara Frum had many of the same qualities. In the U.S. Johnny Carson was the only person that was in the same league as Walter.
Unfortunately there will never be another Walter Cronkite. Sure there will be great news people, great television hosts, but the world has changed. Television news will never be as important as it was. The internet has seen to that. The opportunity to speak to and sometimes for all the people just does not exist anymore in any medium.
The TV news business has changed too. It used to be a reporter centric medium where the guy on the site of the story provided the all the answers. Today it’s the news desk that writes and produces the stories. The reporter in most cases is just a face holding a microphone. It’s not a lack of reporting talent, it’s a lack of time. In the golden age a reporter had to produce one quality news story per day. Today they have to file for radio, TV, the internet and in some cases for multiple newscasts all day long. They have no time to think let alone assess a story.
Speed has become as important, if not more, than accuracy. And the technology allows for live reporting from any scene anywhere in the world. That means an anchor sitting in New York or Toronto is expected to comment on a story that’s happening right now in Teheran or Beijing. If we have the live pictures we go to air. The technology that was supposed to make TV news more accurate has in fact devalued the news. How can a man or woman sitting at a desk really know what’s happening 10,000 miles away?
A more important change has occurred since the Vietnam War. Politicians came to understand the power of TV. President Lyndon Johnson, I believe was first when he was quoted as saying that when he lost Walter Cronkite’s support for the war in Vietnam, he lost the American people. He decided not to run for re-election. Smart politicians since that time have learned the art of spin. Spin doctors are among their most important staff members. The purpose of all of this is to manipulate the media. In Walter’s time the media, to quote Marshall McLuhan, was the message. Today they are pawns to the message. The power has shifted. The Carl Roves of the world are better at getting their stories out than the reporters that cover them. Carl and his buddies have the time, the expertise and the money. All the reporters have is a camera and a microphone…easy pickings for the pros.
In the end it is no surprise that TV news just isn’t what it used to be. There are too many factors weighing against television journalism.
So when we look back at Walter Cronkite’s career and his amazing accomplishments we should shed a tear not just for the loss a great pioneer and icon but for television journalism. Walter Cronkite is both an example and a symbol of what it has lost and what it has become.